Sometimes, the most personal of our experiences are actually the most universal. One of my most potent memories is of the first time that I realized the world does not share my town’s concept of what is beautiful.
I was in California, waiting for my friend Adam to arrive. I was sitting on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, smoking cigarettes and people-watching. A boy approached me, and he was clearly a traveler. I just didn’t know how to label him yet.
Let’s take a step back for the sake of context. Before that point, I had not ventured far from Suburbia except to go on family vacations to various places. On those vacations, we would always camp instead of using hotels. From those trips, I had an inkling of a notion that there were different types of people in the world; but my predominant experience of my town would stomp those notions out rather quickly.
My town, Glastonbury, was a mixture of mansions and farms; but most of the people there had money. Kids at my school (are any of you reading this?) for the most part, placed a big emphasis on financial wealth, brand names, pretty faces. My face was never pretty. My skin always looked dirty, courtesy of my thick Italian heritage. My hair was frizzy and unruly, and I didn’t know how to wear make up. My elbows were dry and my teeth had a space in the middle. Needless to say, I was one of the kids that got picked on a lot, until picking on people was no longer cool. I chose to turn inwards, and I am grateful now that I did not fit in to that world and let my spirit become corrupted by it.
Because of the teasing and whatnot, I think that part of me gave up on the idea of ever being “pretty.” If someone aside from my few closest friends would talk to me, I knew better than to really get too excited. Often times, there was a joke on me waiting to be played. I was cautious and a bit pessimistic.
But then I went to Venice Beach during the summer of my first year of college to meet up with Adam. My world blew apart. There were all kinds of people! And this traveler, he was walking up to me, ready to bum a cigarette.
His clothes were perhaps the dirtiest I had ever seen. They were turning into rags, falling off of his body. Yet he did not walk like he was ashamed of them. His hair was a mess, turning into dreadlocks that were not made in a salon or intentionally. His face was smudged with dirt, but also somehow cleaner than any I had ever seen.
“Where do you come from?” he had asked me.
“Connecticut,” I answered, always embarrassed of that boring, tiny, judgy state.
“No, I mean, where do you come from. Your blood. Your nationality.” his voice was deadly serious; and he was smoking in a way I had never seen. Taking quick little puffs of the cigarette, pulling them all into his lungs at once, and then letting them out in one silky stream.
“Italian and Austrian. Mostly Italian.” That answer was burned into my vocabulary. A lot of people asked this questions, since I had ridiculously think dark hair, and my skin turned a crazy sort of brown when it got enough sun. In Spain, people wanted to think I was Spanish. In my town, people wanted to say that I had dirty skin.
“I knew it. You are a Unique, like me. Not like these people.”
“What’s a Unique?”
“A person that comes from many places, many races. A person that is like no other. Not like these people, these people are a dime a dozen.” He swept his hand across our view of the boardwalk, the pretty people walking around. They were clean and pressed, they were sparkling in many cases like the people from my town. The people that took the time to straighten their hair in the morning; the people that knew the difference between a fancy brand and a knock-off. I had never seen someone judge them as inferior before.
“Oh, yeah, I guess we are Unique.” I wasn’t sure what to say; wasn’t sure if he was experiencing extreme mind states or if he was just passionate about this topic. I just wanted him to be the one right person in the world.
“Someday,” he continued, “we will make a place of our own, and have children, children that are Uniques as well. They will be the most beautiful of all.” he went on about this idea, this paradise.
For the first time, I felt that my strange appearance was not something that was necessarily a bad thing.
The darkness of my skin felt like a magical weapon; my thick hair felt like a famous and rare signature. I felt like my body itself was not an item worthy of just casting away, was not a mistake, a falling-short. It was different than most of the people I had seen; and that is what made it precious and interesting. Suddenly, I was as much a part of things as other people were.
For me, that was the first real moment of feeling that I could, in some people’s eyes, be something other than an ugly mess. If I could thank that boy, I most definitely would.
I wonder if other people have this experience, if they have one particular moment where they first remember feeling that their previously accepted world just got bigger; or if they just gradually transitioned into new states of being.
I’m sure we all have our own insecurities growing up, and our own ways of overcoming them. This is also a process that continuously unravels throughout our lifetimes.
Do you have any memories or experiences you want to share about when your smaller world view first expanded? Was it a pleasant experience, or an unpleasant one? Did it happen all at once, or gradually? Is there someone you would thank if you could? I would love to hear them, and I’m sure others would as well! You never know who might get inspired into a new way of seeing things.